About 15 years ago, my friend Charlie Nurnberg, then the Sales VP at Sterling (which was, then, an independent publisher not yet bought by Barnes & Noble) threw me a challenge.
“For years,” he said, “I got the B&N green-bar report [by which he meant an Excel spreadsheet] every Friday. I had 800 titles on my backlist and I knew everything that was going on.” But times had changed. “Now we have several thousand titles on the backlist, I have two guys working for me looking at the report, and I know stuff is falling between the cracks. Can you help me find it?”
I did a bunch of things to tweak that report, but two of them were extremely simple and turned out to be extremely valuable. B&N was telling its publishers in these weekly reports what the inventory for each title was in the superstores and how many they sold last week. And they also told each publisher how many of the copies of each title B&N was holding in their distribution center. These were copies not on store shelves.
In our massaged version of the spreadsheet, we calculated and reported what percentage of the week’s superstore inventory had sold and what percentage of the total B&N stock was in the distribution center. Then, employing one of the simplest things one can do in Excel, we sorted by those percentages to see what titles had sold the highest percentage of their inventory and which had the highest percentage of their stock in the DC.
Actionable items literally jumped off the spreadsheet. There were titles with little distribution that had sold big percentages of their stock, suggesting strongly they should be in more stores. And the first time out, we found two titles with 5000 copies in the DC and none in the stores. And those two titles had shipped several months previously.
This made two things abundantly clear to me. One I call Shatzkin’s Law: “every spreadsheet is one calculation short of useful”. And the other is that any publisher or sales rep responsible for hundreds of titles or more needs help figuring out what titles to focus on, even before they start analyzing those individual titles.
Both things are still true. Except perhaps more so.
What Nurnberg was looking for 15 years ago was guidance for a sales rep to know what to work on during their next interaction with a buyer. The question of “which book(s) should I work on” didn’t arise very often on the marketing side. It was well understood by publishers in those days that marketing efforts could only succeed if books were in the stores available for sale.
It was also well understood that it was a rare title that would have many copies in circulation 180 days after it came out. Most stores that had initial copies would either have sold them or sent them back. So a truly professional book marketer at a big house knew that any publicity break on a book more than six months old could only have value if a) it was big enough to compel stores to restock the title in anticipation of it and b) the publisher had enough time to alert the stores, perhaps through telemarketing, and get copies shipped in.
In fact, the enhanced spreadsheets with additional calculations that made for good exception reporting turned into a little business called Supply Chain Tracker. At its peak, we were providing our versions of the reports from the retail chains, Amazon, and the big wholesalers, all of which provided raw data that our efforts made more actionable to a substantial number of substantial publishers, including one of the Big Five (and we had consulted and taught our tricks to another one). Combining data from the reports, we could look at inventory versus sales across the supply chain. Ultimately, what we were doing could be done by our clients for themselves and taking our efforts in-house was a more efficient solution for them.
But one lesson from that experience is important to apply today. Deciding which titles should get attention on any particular day, or for any particular sales call or marketer’s attention, is not a trivial challenge.
And that challenge for marketers in today’s marketplace is more difficult than it ever was before. Why? Because all titles are in play now. It is no longer true that only titles with real representation in the stores can benefit from a publicity break. It is no longer true that having inventory in place at retail locations is a necessary preconditon to get sales. Except for the biggest bestsellers — for which individual publicity breaks would seldom require a publisher to do anything — I reckon most titles over time sell more copies online than in stores. Online venues, with rare exceptions, are always “in stock”.
That eliminates a critical “screen” for marketers. A title’s age doesn’t matter anymore. So every publicity break — indeed, any change in circumstances that would make a book more likely to be discovered in search — is an opportunity to increase sales through publisher initiative.
That is a new challenge and it requires solutions we didn’t contemplate 10 or 15 years ago when the idea that more printed books would be sold online than in stores was not an idea to be taken very seriously. If you suspect that I have a solution in mind, you’re right. We’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.